Why I Love Cross Country: The Parents

My parents traveled all the way to Evansville, Indiana to watch nationals — a meet in which I didn’t even race. They don’t just love watching their daughter run; they love the sport itself.

Welcome to the third post of the “Why I Love Cross Country” series! So far, I have published my personal perspective as well as the perspectives of other runners. But, those who adore the sport aren’t only the individuals who cross the finish line. Thus for this post, I interviewed some of cross country’s most devoted fans: the parents.

Before Jadyn Agee’s first race, her mom almost threw up.

The fresh fall air, the mowed grass, the faded white line — it all elicited the same nervousness Jen Agee felt in high school. A former runner for Lincoln Southeast, Jen now experiences the same emotional waves of nervousness, disappointment, pride and joy while watching her daughter compete.

“Running cross country was such a huge part of my life that even 20 years later, those feelings have come flooding back,” she said.

But cross country even allures parents with no former experience in the sport. Julie Becker described the rush of adrenaline she felt when first waiting for her daughter, Sophia, to appear around sheltered corners on the course. These feelings, accompanied by observations of the inclusivity of cross country, captivated Julie from the start.

“Parents cheered for unknown children and congratulated children from other schools,” she said. “I was hooked immediately because the next week would mean community and just maybe, a faster time. Goals were already being set by the girl I came to watch run.”

Words like “community” and “family” are often tossed around by athletes when asked to describe cross country. Parents are also part of this family — and not just in the biological sense; they volunteer together, travel together and cheer together.

“A lot of us [parents] are there at every meet cheering on each other’s kids as well as our own,” said Mary Poe, whose daughter, Jeralyn, runs for Michigan State. “We often experience together our children’s triumphs and heartaches and all the emotions that go along with [them]. Some of my very best friends are other cross country parents.”

Aside from its emotional toll, being a devoted cross country parent requires physical sacrifices — sacrifices made out of love for the sport. Unique to cross country is its requirement for spectators to run (or do the “parent shuffle,” as Jen calls it) between areas on the course. Yet, many of cross country parents’ sacrifices are made before the meets.

College cross country parents (and grandparents) travel — A LOT. My dad took this photo after 2016 regionals in Sioux Falls.

When my mom was the head cross country parent rep for Lincoln East High School, I witnessed these sacrifices firsthand. Among many other duties, my mom organized volunteer positions for meets, coordinated pasta feed donations and made meet details “better and more informative for the parents, especially those who were unfamiliar with the sport.”

“It was a lot of hard work, but I loved all of it,” she said. “I think the best memories though were really getting to know all of the kids through the years…And I’m pretty sure my finish line/chute team of parents [was] the best in the state of Nebraska.”

And humbly, she received the Chris MacKnight Award — given to an outstanding Lincoln East High School Booster — for her contributions, especially in the fall of 2015. During my senior year of cross country, our assistant coach, Andrea Kabourek, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and died the day before a midseason meet. Not only was Andrea an instrumental piece of our team, but she was also the wife of our head coach, Brian Kabourek. 

My mom at Lincoln East Booster Blitz after Coach Kabourek surprised her with the Chris MacKnight award.

In his nomination letter, Coach Kabourek wrote that my mom “constructed some beautifully written emails that kept parents in the loop, and the emails and communication treated athletes and parents not as a team, but as a family.”

My dad’s love letters to cross country exist in photographs; he simultaneously captures my teammates and I during races while still cheering loudly. And though some would expect the camera to weigh him down, my dad takes the “parent shuffle” to a “parent dash” in order to find the best lighting and backdrops on the course. His devotion even motivated me to photograph my teammates last fall when I was sidelined by a stress reaction.

My dad donning his camera bag after Nike Regionals last year. Usually the man behind the camera, my dad was finally forced to take a post-race picture with me.

In many cases, parents devote their whole selves to cross country, even though they are not the individuals competing. But, why?

Usually this is the point in my writing at which I try to arrive at some grand, generalized conclusion. Yet truthfully, all of the parents I interviewed love cross country for completely different reasons:

My dad adores the spectators’ closeness to the action (which, of course, aids in his photographs’ quality). A spreadsheet guy at heart, he also is drawn to cross country’s objectivity and combination of team and individual goals.

My mom loves the “rugged nature” that breeds toughness and becomes a variable in one’s performance; everyone runs the same course, “no matter what your level.”

Julie said that cross country has refined both she and her daughter through hard lessons “in being patient, content, humble and trusting God’s sovereign plans.” Though difficult at the time, these struggles bloomed into appreciation and love.

Mary loves the cross country community’s support — even among opposing teams. Likely, this inclusivity derives from the fact that “no real difficult or special skills are needed” so “almost everybody can run and therefore be a part of the team.”

And aside from the bagels and chocolate milk, Jen appreciates “that every runner matters.”

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